The mistake of bourgeois psychology, and the object of a materialist psychology
There is really no lack of psychological theories about what it is that individuals or “the masses” do. What psychology as a scientific discipline has promulgated about man's inner nature enjoys an enormous popularity beyond the circle of experts. By employing its principles, people obtain “insight” into the deeper motives of human activity — in everyday work life, in sports and games, in politics and the fine arts — and by applying psychological wisdom to their own lives, and the lives of others, they expect benefits. Every variety of psychology is “in.” And what a variety it is: from “serious” therapy, which has become an elaborately learned trade plied by professionals; to popular magazines which regard every single thing done by anyone today as a psychological case; to practical guidance for the anxious who want to make progress in their careers or in the “art of loving!”
Nevertheless the principles of psychological thinking are as simple as they are wrong.
The first principle is to deny an objective content and purpose to the ambitions individuals harbor and the actions they carry out. A psychologist will insist that no matter what they do, people are always grappling with themselves, with forces and agencies that belong to their nature, but operate in such a way as to be wholly or partly beyond the control of the conscious will. On this score such contrasting schools as psychoanalysis and behaviorism see eye to eye. It was no problem for Freud to deduce the literary production of Dostoevsky from his psychic life plus childhood. For him, love and work, study and communism were equally valid as strategies for avoiding frustration. And to Skinner, thought and speech, state and religion appear as nothing but special cases of behavior conditioned by all kinds of variables — processes and mechanisms which nobody knows about except behaviorists.
This already reveals the second principle. People may think they have a conception of themselves and the world, set goals for themselves and find and create the means to achieve them. They may imagine they not only have a mind, but actually use it all the time. However, psychology knows better: free will is a fiction, it does not exist. In view of the actual achievements of free will, which are indeed somewhere between fairly contradictory and outright idiotic, a psychologist is pleased to warn that the “role of the conscious” must not be overestimated — so says Freud. He “explains” everything mankind does as the uncontrolled manifestation of “unconscious” and “subconscious” forces. In this he is not swayed by logic. With no further ado he foists on the “unconscious” the powers to judge, to reason and to dissimulate that are precisely what characterize a thinking subject's conscious and calculating dealing with the world. Behaviorism even goes so far as to campaign explicitly against “mental concepts,” and to declare “will” to be non-existent by putting it in quotation marks, since a “scientific view of human beings” presupposes that “behavior is determined by laws.” By this, Skinner, for example, heads straight for the result that also appears at the other end of the spectrum of psychological thinking, that only a person schooled in psychology knows the true reasons and mysterious motives for why people work, eat, play, love, obey or commit crimes. Whereas everyone else goes wrong in assuming he is just doing all the various things that are his everyday responsibility or strike him as being called for.
The third principle is quite simply that psychologists officially fight every explanation of perceptions and feelings, of consciousness and speech, of free will itself. The dogma of the psychological outlook on the world is that the continually cited techniques of self-control — even though not even applied consciously — are themselves the key to knowing the “real” purpose of every deed and misdeed. This dogma not only denies the objective purpose of what people do, it also shows the greatest disinterest in the psychological ways people go about their business. The determinations of subjectivity, whether in general or in the specific form they take in bourgeois society, invariably interest a psychologist as what they aren’t — namely, as “motives” and, therefore, as the reasons for everything and anything. On the one hand, the exponents of the discipline do not at all mind admitting they can only offer “hypothetical models” of intelligence, consciousness, speech, thought, etc., and proclaiming publicly that there might actually not even be a specific object for them to study. On the other hand, Freud's three-province theory of the mind and Skinner's conditioned reflex quite satisfy the needs of modern scholars for a worldview. They regard buying, working, sexual, and political behavior as psychologically explainable. Some even think they are being pretty critical when they see through advertising to discover manipulation — cunning conditioning or luring of the subconscious — or when they explain fascist fellow-traveling, the failure to engage in class struggle, etc., by the helplessness of individuals who have no choice due to their lack of ego strength and such.
It is thus quite called for, not only to expose the mistakes of this science, but also to set aright the upside-down world of official psychology and its supporters in politics, especially the "emancipatory" kind. One should put an end to the prattle about the “subjective factor” and the baseless rumor that Marxism neglects psychological dimensions, which is invariably the opener to an attack on its “merely” economic theory of the bourgeois world. Why should a correct theory about how modern individuals practice their subjectivity contradict the critique of political economy? Or, to anticipate the results of this book: when people put their definitely free will into practice on the basis of false consciousness, they are doing nothing other than making their individuality obedient to the dictates of capital and state in any number of different ways. One need by no means deny individual freedom, much less conjure up an elaborate power of the unconscious, in order to explain how political rule and exploitation achieve global success. And the fact that the critically acclaimed “individual” is a party to all this and puts up with so many things that his admirers abhor, is not so much a reason to admire him as to have doubts about his and his admirers' state of mind. Showing understanding for false consciousness is the very opposite of knowing the reasons, the necessity, for it. As long as those damaged by the bourgeois order behave merely like so many little “ensembles of social relations” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach), they logically have to be the object of criticism.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the moral consciousness analyzed here and the techniques of morality it invents are nothing more than the ways individuals grapple with bourgeois rule in order to endure it. It is a joke when people's achievements in this sphere give rise to the “conclusion” that the bourgeois order conforms precisely to “human nature” just the way it happens to be. This is a simple interchange of cause and effect, which has been part of the standard ideological repertoire for a long time. But it is no less silly to invert the joke and say capitalism contradicts “human nature,” is terribly “inhuman” and stifles true individuality. One can easily gather from the present work just what there is to say against both ideologies from the standpoint of a rational psychology.